2012 March 28 Wednesday
Sitting Too Long Boosts Death Risks

Suggested change in a Bob Marley song's lyrics: Get up, stand up, stand up for your life.

Standing up more often may reduce your chances of dying within three years, even if you are already physically active, a study of more than 200,000 people published in Archives of Internal Medicine today shows.

The study found that adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40% increased risk of dying in the next three years compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day. This was after taking into account their physical activity, weight and health status.

"These results have important public health implications," said study lead author Dr Hidde van der Ploeg, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney's School of Public Health.

I try to get up and take walks every few hours. Lately I've got some hand exercisers that I use while I walk. I also use a much stronger version of such exercisers to work both arms to close one as a way to get upper arm and chest exercise. Portable work-out equipment. Definitely needed for people who spend many hours a day in front of a computer.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 28 10:29 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Newly Found Hammerhead Shark Species Endangered

You might think that in the 21st century it should be possible to discover a shark species. Surely big fish have been examined closely enough that all the major fish species have been identified. But no. A new shark species that looks like the scalloped hammerhead has 20 fewer vertebrae (170 versus 190) and they are unfortunately both endangered due to overfishing to get their fins.

Identity confusion between a new, yet unnamed shark species, originally discovered off the eastern United States by Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center (NSU-OC) researchers, and its look-alike cousin—the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark—may threaten the survival of both species.

When an animal or fish has a unique feature that has appeal due to fairly irrational reasons (e.g. belief in aphrodisiac qualities by some large affluent population) I'm hard pressed to see how its extinction (at least outside of zoos and aquariums) can be prevented. We could do with less widespread irrational belief in imaginary medical benefits of rare animals and fish.

This shark ranges over thousands of miles. So how come nobody noticed before it is unique?

According to an April 2012 article in the scientific journal Marine Biology, the new look-alike hammerhead species has now been discovered more than 4,300 miles away near the coast of southern Brazil. This confirms that the original finding was not a local oddity and the new species is much wider spread. The look-alike species may face the same fishery pressures as the real scalloped hammerhead, which is being fished unsustainably for its highly prized fins.

It slip off from the scalloped hammerhead 4.5 million years ago. Will they both go extinct at the same time?

By Randall Parker 2012 March 28 10:17 PM  Trends Extinction
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2012 March 27 Tuesday
Gut-On-A-Chip Microdevice For Faster Research

The future of biomedical research will happen with large numbers of very cheap small devices. Just like with computers.

Boston, MA -- Researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have created a gut-on-a-chip microdevice lined by living human cells that mimics the structure, physiology, and mechanics of the human intestine -- even supporting the growth of living microbes within its luminal space. As a more accurate alternative to conventional cell culture and animal models, the microdevice could help researchers gain new insights into intestinal disorders, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and also evaluate the safety and efficacy of potential treatments. The research findings appear online in the journal Lab on a Chip.

Biology's rate of progress is going to accelerate because biological research will be done with large numbers of cheap, small, automated chips.

Building on the Wyss Institute's breakthrough "Organ-on-Chip" technology that uses microfabrication techniques to build living organ mimics, the gut-on-a-chip is a silicon polymer device about the size of a computer memory stick.

Small stuff can be made cheaply in volume. With enough software to control it biological research will be controlled at computer consoles commanding large numbers of microfluidic devices. The cheapness, automation, and massive parallelism made possible by the chips will make experiment design and execution fast and easy.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 27 10:01 PM  Biotech Microfluidics
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2012 March 26 Monday
Eye Movement Analysis Detects Liars

University of Buffalo researchers find that an automated system for analyzing eye movements has high accuracy for detecting lies.

Results so far are promising: In a study of 40 videotaped conversations, an automated system that analyzed eye movements correctly identified whether interview subjects were lying or telling the truth 82.5 percent of the time.

That's a better accuracy rate than expert human interrogators typically achieve in lie-detection judgment experiments, said Ifeoma Nwogu, a research assistant professor at UB's Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors (CUBS) who helped develop the system. In published results, even experienced interrogators average closer to 65 percent, Nwogu said.

Imagine people using hidden cameras in a conversation with a spouse or in a job interview. They could analyze the images later.

Do you know anyone you'd like to subject to lie detection analysis? For what reason?

By Randall Parker 2012 March 26 10:55 PM  Brain Surveillance
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Chocolate Keeps Weight Down?

Some reasonable people will point out this study does not prove a causal relationship or the direction of causation. But as with many other great pleasures, I've never tried to be reasonable about my chocolate eating. I'm skinny and I eat chocolate. I'm going to believe that's not a coincidence until proven otherwise.

CHICAGO – More frequently eating chocolate was linked to lower body mass index (BMI), according to a research letter in the March 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Consumption of certain types of chocolate has been linked to some favorable metabolic associations with blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and cholesterol level. However, because chocolate can be a calorie-laden sweet there are concerns about eating it.

Beatrice A. Golomb, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues with the University of California, San Diego, studied 1,018 men and woman without known cardiovascular disease, diabetes or extremes of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) levels who were screened for participation in a clinical study examining noncardiac effects of statins. To measure chocolate consumption, 1,017 of the participants answered a question about how many times per week they ate chocolate. BMI was calculated for 972 of them. Of the participants, 975 completed a food frequency questionnaire.

"Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often," the authors note.

Participants had a mean (average) age of 57 years, 68 percent were men and the mean BMI was 28. They ate chocolate a mean (average) of two times a week and exercised 3.6 times a week.

"In conclusion, our findings – that more frequent chocolate intake is linked to lower BMI – are intriguing," the authors conclude. "A randomized trial of chocolate for metabolic benefits in humans may be merited."

I'm not going to enroll in a randomized trial where I might get put into the no-chocolate group. I'm also not going to go into any no-blueberry, no-strawberry, or no-kiwi fruit control group (among others).

Katherine Hepburn knew.

Katherine Hepburn famously said of her slim physique: "What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of chocolate." New evidence suggests she may have been right.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 26 10:41 PM  Aging Diet Weight Studies
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2012 March 25 Sunday
More Heart Disease Death With Shorter Telomeres

You might be getting tired of "if your chromosome telomere caps are shorter you are more likely to die" posts. But every time I come across another research report showing this relationship I think "this shows how much benefit we can get from stem cell therapies". These reports show that the ability to deliver newer stem cells and newer other types of cells into various places in the body would likely increase life expectancy. Cells more able to divide (and shorter telomeres interfere with cell division) are more able to create new cells to do repairs.

BOSTON, MA—No one really wants the short end of the stick, in this case the short end of a chromosome. Telomeres, which are DNA-protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes, can be thought of as protein "caps" that protect chromosomes from deteriorating and fusing with neighboring chromosomes.

It is typical for telomeres to shorten as cells divide and chromosomes replicate over time. Now a new study from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) suggest a strong link between telomere shortening and poor cardiovascular outcomes in patients with acute coronary syndrome.

If you think "yes, but I do not have acute coronary syndrome" keep in mind that people who have long telomeres are probably much less likely to get acute coronary syndrome (and osteoarthritis and many other maladies, aches, and pains). Your body will function better with younger cells to do repairs even if most of the cells are older.

Regardless of age group shorter telomeres are associated with greater risk of heart attack and death.

The study is being presented at the American College of Cardiology 2012 Annual Scientific Session, March 24 to 26 in Chicago.

Scientists measured telomere length in 5,044 patients with an acute coronary syndrome who were followed for 18 months.

They evaluated the risk of cardiovascular death or heart attack based on telomere length and other characteristics.

Shorter telomeres were associated with older age, male gender, smoking, prior heart attack and heart failure; although, the correlation between each individual factor and telomere length was modest. Age, for example, only accounts for seven percent of the variability in telomere length.

Telomere length was strongly associated with risk of cardiovascular death or heart attack. Patients with shorter telomeres had the highest risk. This relationship was consistent across various age groups.

Even if you are young enough to think you have low odds of a heart attack or other organ failure in the next 30 years you are still better off getting youthful cell therapies sooner rather than later. Aging damage to the body builds up over decades until it reaches the point where the body malfunctions enough to cause heart attacks or other major organ failures. A lot of disease processes feed on themselves in a vicious cycle where the more the body malfunctions the more it damages itself. You are better off keeping your body in excellent condition since reversing the vicious cycle at an advanced stage of disease is much much harder.

I've done many other posts about the association of telomere length with life expectancy, osteoarthritis risk, and other maladies.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 25 07:58 PM  Aging Measurements
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2012 March 21 Wednesday
Elon Musk: Half Million Dollar Mars Round Trip?

Can Musk be serious?

Rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk believes he can get the cost of a round trip to Mars down to about half a million dollars.

I am skeptical.

Think of it from the perspective of energy costs. Not only does the energy have to be expended to move your body to Mars and back. But also all your food and energy, oxygen recycling, drugs, and assorted supplies have to be carried there with you. That all takes many more times energy.

Here's what I want to know: How to calculate the energy costs of a human trip to Mars? How much mass has to be moved per person? Just in supplies how much has to be sent to Mars for, say, a 180 lb person? 20 times their weight? 50 times? Then there is the fuel and the spacecraft. What's the total mass ratio of everything else per pound (or kg) of person.

Musk thinks he can get the cost of lifting weight into space below $1000 per lb. But suppose he gets it to $500 per lb. A half million dollars still only pays to lift 1000 lbs into Earth orbit. Most of that mass will be used to lift other mass to Mars (mostly fuel burned to move other fuel). He acknowledges the need for a 2 orders of magnitude cost reduction. I'm skeptical he's going to succeed at that in the next 10 years.

Space travel comes down the cost of moving mass around. We need orders of magnitude cheaper costs of getting stuff into orbit and then moving stuff out of Earth orbit and then into Mars orbit.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 21 10:02 PM  Space Exploration
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Data Center Solar Farms Waste Of Money?

James Hamilton, a data center manager at Amazon questions whether solar panels installed at computer data centers make any sense.

In a recent blog post, Hamilton — who also served as a data center architect at Microsoft — asks whether such solar farms are “really somewhere between a bad idea and pure marketing, where the environmental impact is purely optical.”

My take on all solar installations (subsidized with tax dollars paid by you and me): Their only real beneficial purpose is to create the demand for solar panels that will cause manufacturers to go down learning curves to lower their costs. At some future date solar photovoltaics will start making economic sense. One hopes that date comes sooner rather than later. But be clear: that date has not yet arrived.

As for companies that spin their solar installations as examples of good corporate citizenship and responsibility: Oh get off it. Some people prone to want to swallow feel-good arguments are going to be taken in by this rhetoric. But resist that impulsive and let us be real: If something is expensive for what it produces (and solar is more expensive than wind power or efficiency measures for example) it takes a lot of resources to build. Using more resources is worse for the environment than using less resources, all else equal.

Is there a flaw in my unsentimental take on this? Please comment if you see an error in my logic.

While I'm at it: If we are going to have solar installations built at higher cost then can we at least put them where the sun shines the most? I realize various governments want to crow about their solar power capacity. But solar in Germany is pretty stupid all considered. Ditto Seattle and other relatively dark places. Though if the Germans want to subsidize the development of cheaper solar power for many years (only to see most of the manufacturing move to China) then I'm not going to try to stand in their way. I'm not paying taxes to the German government or paying high German electric power rates.

Of course, there's a limit to how much reason we can expect from governments or voters. We will spend more to go down solar panel cost curves than we could have spent in a more rational system. We will also get propagandized about how governments and corporations are doing great things with our tax dollars to usher in a better future. But my advice is to resist being sentimentalized.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 21 09:40 PM  Energy Solar
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2012 March 20 Tuesday
Increased Death Risk From Red Meat

While quite a few studies have found an increased risk of assorted diseases and death from eating red meat some of those studies lumped together unprocessed and processed meat. So I've long wondered whether the signal against unprocessed meat is strong. This study finds the risk exists even for non-processed red meat.

CHICAGO – Eating more red meat appears to be associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, but substituting other foods including fish and poultry for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk, according to a study published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Meat is a major source of protein and fat in many diets and previous studies suggest that eating meat is associated with increased risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and certain cancers, the authors write in their study background.

An Pan, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, and colleagues analyzed data from two prospective cohort studies with repeated measures of diet and up to 28 years of follow-up. Data from 37,698 men and 83,644 women were used. Researchers documented 23,926 deaths, including 5,910 from CVD and 9,464 from cancer.

CVD is cardiovascular disease.

"We found that a higher intake of red meat was associated with a significantly elevated risk of total, CVD and cancer mortality, and this association was observed for unprocessed and processed red meat, with a relatively greater risk for processed red meat," the authors comment. "Substitution of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products and whole grains for red meat was associated with a significantly lower risk of mortality."

The risk increase from unprocessed red meat is substantial.

The elevated risk of total mortality in the pooled analysis for a one-serving-per-day increase was 12 percent for total red meat, 13 percent for unprocessed red meat and 20 percent for processed red meat, the results indicate.

Here's what I did not expect: both nuts and poultry lower risks more than fish. Huh? What's with that?

In their substitution analyses, the authors estimated that replacing one serving of total red meat with one serving of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products or whole grains daily was associated with a lower risk of total mortality: 7 percent for fish, 14 percent for poultry, 19 percent for nuts, 10 percent for legumes, 10 percent for low-fat dairy products and 14 percent for whole grains.

Since I get tired of chicken I'd like to see more restaurants offer turkey all year around. The variety around non-red meat isn't big enough. We need greater variety of relatively safer forms of meat.

Some people could have avoided the grim reaper.

The researchers estimated that 9.3% of deaths in men and 7.6% in women could have been prevented at the end of the follow-up if all the participants had consumed less than 0.5 servings per day of red meat.

Would chicken with fish oil provide more benefits than chicken alone? Why the bigger benefit from poultry? How much of the benefits from nuts, legumes, fish, and chicken are additive?

By Randall Parker 2012 March 20 10:26 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2012 March 18 Sunday
Bacterial Infection Boosts Insulin-Resistant Diabetes Risk?

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria causes stomach ulcers and also may increase the risks of some types of cancers while possibly lowering the risks of other cancers. It isn't clear (at least to me) whether killing the H. pylori that might be in your stomach will lower or raise all cause mortality risk. However, a new study finds evidence that H. pylori could contribute to development of insulin-resistant (type 2) diabetes.

NEW YORK, March 14, 2012 – A new study by researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center reveals that the presence of Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria is associated with elevated levels of glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), an important biomarker for blood glucose levels and diabetes. The association was even stronger in obese individuals with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI). The results, which suggest the bacteria may play a role in the development of diabetes in adults, are available online in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.

There have been several studies evaluating the effect of the presence of H. pylori on diabetes outcomes, but this is the first to examine the effect on HbA1c, an important, objective biomarker for long-term blood sugar levels, explained Yu Chen, PhD, MPH, associate professor of epidemiology at NYU School of Medicine, part of NYU Langone Medical Center.

"The prevalence of obesity and diabetes is growing at a rapid rate, so the more we know about what factors impact these conditions, the better chance we have for doing something about it," Dr. Chen said. Looking at the effects of H. pylori on HbA1c, and whether the association differs according to BMI status, provided what could be a key piece of information for future treatment of diabetes, she explained.

Too high blood sugar accelerates aging. So it is worth the effort to avoid the risk of insulin-insensitive diabetes.

Getting tested for H. pylori might be worth the trouble, especially if you had the test done as part of a larger set of tests to check for other risk factors such as bad blood lipid profile and high blood sugar.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 18 10:16 PM  Health Risks
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2012 March 15 Thursday
Retinopathy Marker For Cognitive Decline

A disease of the blood vessels of the retina in the eye turns to be an indicator for risk of cognitive decline.

Women 65 or older who have even mild retinopathy, a disease of blood vessels in the retina, are more likely to have cognitive decline and related vascular changes in the brain, according to a multi-institutional study led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The findings suggest that a relatively simple eye screening could serve as a marker for cognitive changes related to vascular disease, allowing for early diagnosis and treatment, potentially reducing the progression of cognitive impairment to dementia.

One thing noteworthy here: the vascular system is incredibly important. If I had to choose just a few rejuvenation therapies out of a much larger set then one I'd be tempted to go for is a complete rejuvenation of the vasculature. Aging blood vessels do not deliver enough nutrients. They also rupture, causing dead of neurons in the brain. The damaging effects are manifold.

High blood pressure and insulin-resistant diabetes are both major risk factors for retinopathy.

As retinopathy usually is caused by Type II diabetes or hypertension, a diagnosis could indicate early stages of these diseases, before they are clinically detectable. Early diagnosis could allow for lifestyle or drug interventions when they might be most effective.

“Lots of people who are pre-diabetic or pre-hypertensive develop retinopathy,” said the lead author of the study, Mary Haan, DrPH, MPH, UCSF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. “Early intervention might reduce the progression to full onset diabetes or hypertension.”

We even more need the ability to reverse diabetes and high blood pressure. Rejuvenation of the blood vessels would likely lower blood pressure. Bring on the stem cell therapies and drugs that would gradually kill off old vascular cells and youthful cells take their place.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 15 10:11 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2012 March 14 Wednesday
Less Sleep Raises Appetite

If you aren't getting enough sleep you may be eating too much as a result.

"We tested whether lack of sleep altered the levels of the hormones leptin and ghrelin, increased the amount of food people ate, and affected energy burned through activity," said Virend Somers, M.D., Ph.D., study author and professor of medicine and cardiovascular disease at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.. Leptin and ghrelin are associated with appetite.

The researchers studied 17 normal, healthy young men and women for eight nights, with half of the participants sleeping normally and half sleeping only two-thirds their normal time.

Participants ate as much as they wanted during the study.

Researchers found:

  • The sleep deprived group, who slept one hour and 20 minutes less than the control group each day consumed an average 549 additional calories each day.
  • The amount of energy used for activity didn't significantly change between groups, suggesting that those who slept less didn't burn additional calories.
  • Lack of sleep was associated with increased leptin levels and decreasing ghrelin — changes that were more likely a consequence, rather than a cause, of over-eating.

"Sleep deprivation is a growing problem, with 28 percent of adults now reporting that they get six or fewer hours of sleep per night," said Andrew D. Calvin, M.D., M.P.H., co-investigator, cardiology fellow and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic.

Have you gradually put on too much weight? Do you sleep enough? Try changing your lifestyle so that you can get more sleep.

This isn't new news. Other researchers have found a relationship between less sleep, greater appetite, and more weight gain.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 14 10:28 PM  Brain Sleep
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Algorithm Detects Drug Interactions From Reports

Stanford researchers have developed a better way to detect which suspected harmful drug interactions are real.

STANFORD, Calif. -- A week ago, you started a new prescription medication for acne. Today, you feel dizzy and short of breath and have difficulty concentrating. Your symptoms are not listed in the package insert as possible side effects of the drug, but why else would you be feeling so odd?

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. Clinical trials are designed to show that a drug is safe and effective. But even the largest trials can't identify irksome or even dangerous side effects experienced by only a tiny proportion of those people taking the drug. They also aren't designed to study how drugs interact with one another in the human body — a consideration that becomes increasingly important as people age and their medicine cabinets begin to overflow.

Now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have devised a computer algorithm that enabled them to swiftly sift through millions of reports to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by patients and their physicians and identify "true" drug side effects. The method also worked to identify previously unsuspected interactions between pairs of drugs, most notably that antidepressants called SSRIs interact with a common blood pressure medication to significantly increase the risk of a potentially deadly heart condition.

Why I think this is important: With web forms and web servers we have the potential to collect many times more data about individual medical and health histories. Then that data could be sifted through to discover more connections between drugs, diet, lifestyle, genetic variants, and many other factors. We could learn more faster if we just crowd sourced health histories and and genetic test results on a very large scale.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 14 10:07 PM  Policy Medical
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2012 March 10 Saturday
Carbon Nanotubes To Cut Medical Testing Time, Costs

Why wait days and do a return visit to a doctor to get medical test results? Carbon nanotubes will eventually enable medical tests while you are in a doctor's office and for a small fraction of current costs.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have tapped into the extraordinary power of carbon “nanotubes” to increase the speed of biological sensors, a technology that might one day allow a doctor to routinely perform lab tests in minutes, speeding diagnosis and treatment while reducing costs.

The new findings have almost tripled the speed of prototype nano-biosensors, and should find applications not only in medicine but in toxicology, environmental monitoring, new drug development and other fields.

The research was just reported in Lab on a Chip, a professional journal. More refinements are necessary before the systems are ready for commercial production, scientists say, but they hold great potential.

“With these types of sensors, it should be possible to do many medical lab tests in minutes, allowing the doctor to make a diagnosis during a single office visit,” said Ethan Minot, an OSU assistant professor of physics. “Many existing tests take days, cost quite a bit and require trained laboratory technicians.

“This approach should accomplish the same thing with a hand-held sensor, and might cut the cost of an existing $50 lab test to about $1,” he said.

But why the need to interrupt your work day go to the doctor's office and wait in line? As lab-on-a-chip medical testing technology gets cheaper the next step should be medical testing pharmacies equipped with medical testing stations. These test stations could be usable in the evenings and weekends. You could get the idea to test yourself at any time. We really should be able to avoid the need to make an appointment, wait for the appointment, interrupt your work day, go to the doctor, wait, see the doctor, see the receptionist to pay a bill, make a follow-up appointment for results, and all the rest of it.

With pharmacy-based testing the results could get uploaded to a web server for your doctor to look at later. Also, medical diagnostic expert systems could store and process your history of medical test results and could alert you and doctors when a real problem presents.

Beyond pharmacy-based testing the next obvious step is testing in the home or wherever else you happen to be. Plug a medical testing device into your iPad or Android phone and let it poke you for blood to spit into it or provide other kinds of samples. Or have sensors built into your own sink and toilet analyze what comes out of you. Also, air sensors on your bed stand could monitor your gases. Plus, sensors implanted into your body could report to your smart phone or your home computer network.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 10 08:52 AM  Biotech Microfluidics
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2012 March 07 Wednesday
The Transition To A DNA Data Rich Environment

A New York Times piece by John Markoff looks at the rapid rate of decline in DNA sequencing costs and the implications for the rate of progress in biomedical science.

“For all of human history, humans have not had the readout of the software that makes them alive,” said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, a research center that is jointly operated by the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Irvine, who is a member of the Complete Genomics scientific advisory board. “Once you make the transition from a data poor to data rich environment, everything changes.”

We are living thru that transition. The flood of human genetic sequencing data is easily going to rise by 6 orders of magnitude in this decade and probably much higher that. Not only will a substantial portion of the population get themselves sequenced but also each person with certain diseases (notably cancers) will get many different biopsies sequenced.

As an important example of how everything changes in a data rich environment British researchers find that different samples from the same tumor have more different than shared genetic mutations.

They found around two third of genetic faults were not repeated across other biopsies from the same tumour. The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The ability to fully sequence a cancer cell's genome will allow sequencing of many different cells from the same cancer to identify all the mutations and then to figure out which of the mutations are important in enabling the spread of cancers. A cancer patient then could get a series of cancer treatments aimed at each cancer cell subpopulation that has specific mutations which require special handling.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 07 09:55 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2012 March 06 Tuesday
How Vitamin D Boosts Amyloid Beta Removal From Brain

If this works as claimed then better to get the vitamin D decades before enough toxic junk proteins accumulate enough to cause clinical symptoms of brain damage. Vitamin D boosts removal of a protein that is the main component of Alzheimer's plaques.

A team of academic researchers has identified the intracellular mechanisms regulated by vitamin D3 that may help the body clear the brain of amyloid beta, the main component of plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Published in the March 6 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, the early findings show that vitamin D3 may activate key genes and cellular signaling networks to help stimulate the immune system to clear the amyloid-beta protein.

Previous laboratory work by the team demonstrated that specific types of immune cells in Alzheimer's patients may respond to therapy with vitamin D3 and curcumin, a chemical found in turmeric spice, by stimulating the innate immune system to clear amyloid beta. But the researchers didn't know how it worked.

"This new study helped clarify the key mechanisms involved, which will help us better understand the usefulness of vitamin D3 and curcumin as possible therapies for Alzheimer's disease," said study author Dr. Milan Fiala, a researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

If you need a technical reason to take vitamin D here it is:

Researchers found that in both Type I and Type II macrophages, the added 1a,25–dihydroxyvitamin D3 played a key role in opening a specific chloride channel called "chloride channel 3 (CLC3)," which is important in supporting the uptake of amyloid beta through the process known as phagocytosis. Curcuminoids activated this chloride channel only in Type I macrophages.

The scientists also found that 1a,25–dihydroxyvitamin D3 strongly helped trigger the genetic transcription of the chloride channel and the receptor for 1a,25–dihydroxyvitamin D3 in Type II macrophages. Transcription is the first step leading to gene expression.

What I wonder: does an aging immune system contribute to the development of Alzheimer's Disease and other diseases that are the result of accumulation of damaging compounds in the body? Once we can rejuvenate the immune system will the incidence of many diseases go down just because more trash will get taken out?

Immune system rejuvenation could cut death from flu and pneumonia in the aged. Also, the potential to cut the incidence of cancer with better immune systems is very real. Rare people have exceptional immune systems for fighting cancer and aged immune systems with shorter telomeres are associated with higher cancer risk.

The immune system, so accessible in the blood, will be easier to rejuvenate than organs. So the immune system might not be the first part of your body you might think you want to rejuvenate. But ease of access and potential for multiple benefits from rejuvenation puts the immune system on my short list of body systems I most want to rejuvenate.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 06 10:03 PM  Brain Aging
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CO2 Driving Biggest Ocean Chemistry Changes In 300M Years?

An article in Wired takes a look at a new research paper on how the current rate of ocean acidification compares to previous episodes over the last 300 million years. How about a shift in ocean acidity at a speed and magnitude greater than the last 300 million years?

The authors conclude, “[T]he current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 [million years] of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”

Ocean acidification worries me. In theory we could do climate engineering to prevent the worst of global warming. But CO2 is going to dissolve into the oceans and do so at a rate that could easily exceed the ability of species to evolve adaptations.

I think the continued rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is inevitable unless either much cheaper substitutes for fossil fuels are developed (and I agree with those who think major energy innovations take a long time) or Peak Oil, Peak Coal, and Peak Natural Gas cause huge cuts in fossil fuels usage. While I'm confident Peak Oil is near the picture with natural gas especially is unclear.

If a clearer picture emerges that CO2-caused damage to ocean ecosystems will be extensive maybe we could find the political will to use tree growing combined with tree submersion in deep waters to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. But at least for the next couple of decades the tragedy of the commons seems a more likely outcome.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 06 08:03 PM  Trends Ecology
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2012 March 04 Sunday
Emotions Sometimes Better At Predictions?

An excellent book by Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast And Slow has brought into mainstream discussion the insights that psychological researchers have developed about the automated subconscious mind (called system 1 in Kahnemann's book) versus the rational conscious mind (system 2). We make a lot of mistakes by relying on the (rather flawed) heuristics that system 1 uses to very rapidly reach conclusions about problems the mind tries to solve. We could perform more effectively if we could better identify when we should put system 2 to work and if we could become more aware of when system 1 is basically planting ideas that system 2 incorrectly decides to accept.

But we do not have the mental capacity to solve all problems using system 2. We train our minds to apply techniques automatically (e.g. you don't pay that much attention to tying your shoe laces). We basically drill in skills to allow us to do things below the level of the conscious mind and use habits (and that link refers to Charles Duhigg's new book The Power Of Habit which is also on my Kindle waiting to be read). Our many habits help us to lighten our cognitive load so the conscious mind can (hopefully) focus mainly on what it is most needed for.

Turns out, there's some evidence that for some types of guess work system 1 actually does a better job than system 2 in trying to predict what will happen.

The latest demonstration of this effect comes from the lab of Michael Pham at Columbia Business School. The study involved asking undergraduates to make predictions about eight different outcomes, from the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 to the finalists of American Idol. They forecast the Dow Jones and picked the winner of the BCS championship game. They even made predictions about the weather.

Here’s the strange part: although these predictions concerned a vast range of events, the results were consistent across every trial: people who were more likely to trust their feelings were also more likely to accurately predict the outcome.

When to trust your intuition? Click thru and read the details on that. It is a very important question. A related question: How to train yourself so your emotions provide better quality signals on what to do?

Habits seem pretty similar to system 1 but maybe not always the same thing. Or, rather, system 1 might be many subsystems. Some of them might implement habits. When to use habits? What habits to develop? Which techniques to learn to enable system 2 to catch and correct system 1's bigger mistakes? These are the topics of cognitive research that I've become interested in. Given that our minds are flawed and yet also that they have limited capacity how to develop our minds to compensate for our flaws and at the same time make more effective use of the faster system 1 cognitive machinery?

By Randall Parker 2012 March 04 03:36 PM  Brain Cognitive Flaws
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2012 March 03 Saturday
Pets As Vanguards For Rejuvenation Therapy Development

An article about the spreading use of stem cell therapies injected in the joints of arthritic dogs comes with a warning from a veterinary professor of orthopedics that the treatments being offered are unproven.

The problem, Cook said, is that although a few studies have shown that the injection of stem cells into arthritic canine joints does reduce pain, compared with “control” dogs not injected with stems cells, no studies have convincingly shown that stems cells are any better at helping dogs than the current, and less expensive, standard of care. That typically involves a combination of weight loss, pain medications and, when necessary, injections of hyaluronic acid, a slippery substance that often goes missing in arthritis.

Why I think this is important: Dogs (as well as cats and other pets) represent a great opportunity for accelerating the rate of advance of biomedical science and biotechnology. Dogs offer many advantages for development of rejuvenation therapies:

  • Lower regulatory barriers for entry of new treatments into the market.
  • Lower risk of lawsuits.
  • Lower life expectancies enable faster discovery of whether a treatment will extend life or maintain functionality for longer. Can a stem cell therapy extend life of a breed that averages 12 years of life which mostly dies from non-cancer causes? We can find out much quicker than for stem cell therapies used to accomplish the same in humans.
  • Veterinary medical costs are much lower than for humans. Many owners can afford a $2000 experimental treatment. I've spent more than that on an experimental treatment for a late great dog (and it worked btw).

Products in the veterinary medical space can be brought to market more rapidly, iterated upon more rapidly, and therefore improved more rapidly.

With owners eager to try new treatments, lower barriers to entry for new products, and far less risk of lawsuits dogs and other pets offer great advantages for development of therapies. But as the vet school prof above comments: Do the treatments actually work? That's the biggest problem standing in the way of the large scale use of pets as research subjects to extend healthy youthful life.

What's needed: Owners of pets should be able to enroll their pets online as controls or as participants for experimental treatments. We need to be able to find out which treatments help independent of the companies that offer them. This would help both the dogs and eventually humans in the long run.

Owners of pets who try assorted stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and the like have information that is now not being collected systematically. That's a great lost opportunity and the opportunity will grow with each new treatment that reaches the veterinary market. If vets could also report information then test results could be combined with owner observations (e.g. did Fido start running again after stem cells injected into joints?) then the efficacy (or lack of efficacy) of therapies could be discovered much more rapidly.

This ties into a bigger problem: As things stand today truly objective medical research is much rarer than generally appreciated. We need basically open source medical research with large amounts of data collected independent of companies that develop drugs and other treatments. Given enough software and some group (could be mostly volunteers) to manage a web site to collect pet medical histories many others could analyze the data.

Pets are also great for research information collection because with pets privacy isn't a big consideration. My guess is most people won't mind having their pet's medical history made public if they can see a benefit for their current and future pets and for humans as well. Given public availability of the data a far larger number of people with requisite training in statistics, medicine (veterinary or otherwise), and biological sciences could do analyses and discover patterns in the data.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 03 08:39 PM  Biomedical Open Access Research
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2012 March 01 Thursday
Odds Of Solar Flare Electric Grid Disruption

Yet another scientist - this time Peter Riley at Predictive Science - has said the danger of large scale disruption (melted power grids) of civilization from a large coronal mass ejection is high enough that we ought to do more to protect ourselves.

The Earth has a roughly 12 percent chance of experiencing an enormous megaflare erupting from the sun in the next decade. This event could potentially cause trillions of dollars’ worth of damage and take up to a decade to recover from.

Not clear why the risks could be that high. But even if the odds are an order of magnitude lower the cost of protection is so low why not do it? We could buy a substantial amount of risk reduction for under $1 billion. We could affordably reduce our risks from a solar-caused electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). So we should. By contrast, as Jerry Emanuelson has pointed out, protecting against a nuclear EMP is much harder. We should probably go for partial protection against nuclear EMP, just enough to keep society functioning at a level high enough to enable rebuilding.

It is only a matter of time until something like the 1859 Carrington event happens again. If it happened today the impact would be far greater because we've become so heavily dependent on electric power.

Also see my previous posts Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization and NASA Solar Shield Predicts Dangerous Current Flows.

By Randall Parker 2012 March 01 07:34 PM  Dangers Natural General
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